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AMERICAN MORNING

Nation's Oldest, Longest Serving Senator

Aired June 27, 2003 - 08:17   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He was the nation's oldest and longest serving senator ever. Strom Thurmond's death last night at the age of 100 ended a long American political life.
What's his legacy, we ask?

Here is CNN's senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, to provide us some answers -- good morning, Jeff.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

Well, as you pointed out, Thurmond will probably be best known for his length of service and his age. But his real legacy, I think, will be as one of the most influential politicians, Southern or otherwise, of his time.

He was a central figure in a fundamental reshaping of American politics built around the single most divisive consequential dramatic issue in American life, race. And Thurmond was at the center of three key moments -- defiance, realignment and accommodation.

First, defiance. Back in 1948, when he was the Democratic governor of South Carolina, Thurmond helped lead the walkout of Southerners when the convention adopted a strong civil rights plank. Later that year, he ran as the presidential candidate of the states rights Democrats, the so-called Dixiecrats, and he actually carried four states. Never again would Democrats be able to claim a hold on the once solid South for its candidates.

That campaign, by the way, was virulently segregationist, built on a clear premise of white supremacy, fears of race mixing, the most toxic elements of racial appeal.

Two, realignment. That came in 1964 when Thurmond, then a senator, left the Democratic Party and became a Republican. That year Barry Goldwater carried only five Southern states outside his native Arizona. That was the year of the LBJ landslide. But Thurmond's defection was a key symbol of the massive movement of white Southerners out of the Democratic Party.

Four years later, when Thurmond backed Richard Nixon, that proved critical in November in preventing Governor George Wallace from gaining enough electoral votes to throw the contest into the House of Representatives. And it also heralded the so-called Southern strategy that would make Republicans the dominant party in the South. Today the whole Republican electoral strategy begins in the South. They hold a majority of Senate and House and even governor seats in the old Confederacy.

But there is also accommodation. Shortly after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Thurmond began courting black voters. He hired blacks on his staff and he walked away from the racial appeal that had worked for him when only whites could vote. And he actually, Miles, won a relatively impressive share of black votes. And you wonder what his old segregationist self would have thought back in 1991 when Strom Thurmond endorsed the nomination of Clarence Thomas, a black judge married to a white woman.

O'BRIEN: So, in one person you have the embodiment of Southern politics in the 20th century, in a sense, and you have to wonder will the real Strom Thurmond please stand up.

GREENFIELD: Well, look, I think this is, I think -- Strom Thurmond was never a last minute holdout. I mean Jesse Helms, the former senator from North Carolina, basically never signed onto any part of the civil rights movement. On the other hand, unlike Governor Wallace, Thurmond did not spend any time apologizing for his past. And it has to be said that while he ended his life as a bit of a figure of, you know, admiration for sheer survival, he was a symbol of some of the worst political decades that we lived through, that whole toxic quality of race and inflammation and what it did to Southern politics for so many decades.

O'BRIEN: You know, reading about him this morning, I thought about Tip O'Neill, all politics local. And he had that touch with constituents.

GREENFIELD: Yes.

O'BRIEN: An amazing ability to respond to constituent needs, which may have something to do with the way he shifted over time.

GREENFIELD: Well, when a 30 year electorate suddenly becomes black, the racial appeal ends. And also in delivering services and making sure his office stayed in touch -- he was a senator for 48 years, the only senator ever elected on a write-in. So clearly he had something going. And, by the way, when he was governor his first couple of years, he was a relative progressive. Ended the poll tax, which had kept blacks from voting; didn't, was, was opposed to lynching, which may sound like not much, but back in 1947, that was something. It's just that he was, in some sense, imprisoned by the racial politics that colored so much of this country.

O'BRIEN: And the legacy which we think of today perhaps most is what happened to Trent Lott as he was trying to be nice to him at a birthday party.

GREENFIELD: That was that ultimate irony. Trent Lott, the Mississippi senator, said, you know, we voted for you, Strom, and if America had done that, we'd be a lot better off. And to say that that resonated unpleasantly and brought back the notion of really we should have had a segregationist president back in 1948, I doubt that that's what Trent Lott in fact meant, but it sure sounded that way. And it cost him his job. So, yes, even as, at age 100, Strom Thurmond had a political impact on the United States.

O'BRIEN: He was always there, wasn't he?

All right, Jeff Greenfield, thank you very much.

GREENFIELD: OK.

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